Mar 12, 2007

Heather Graham: Fun Is Her Middle Name

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer

Heather Graham just wants to have fun.

Over coffee in the lounge of a hotel just off Dupont Circle -- where the actress known for bubble-headed roles in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" and "Boogie Nights" had alighted to promote "Gray Matters" (see review on Page 33), a romantic comedy about a woman who realizes she's gay after falling for her brother's fiancee -- it soon becomes clear what the guiding principle in her life is.

No, not Transcendental Meditation, which Graham has practiced ever since filmmaker buddy and meditation advocate David Lynch turned her on to it during the actress's 1991 stint as an ex-nun with a troubled past on Lynch's TV series "Twin Peaks." Her twice-a-day regimen is not just profoundly relaxing, she says, or even a way to tap into what Lynch has described as an ocean of bliss, but, more important, "fun."

Reading reviews of her work . . . eh, not so much.

Asked about the mixed notices given her sitcom "Emily's Reasons Why Not" (canceled a little more than a year ago after a single, ignominious airing), Graham says she doesn't pay attention to stuff like that. "I don't want to read what random people think about me," she says. "It just doesn't sound fun."

Her dream sitcom to watch? "Sex and the City," the defunct HBO series some have called the model for "Emily's Reasons." Sure, it was a groundbreaking and taboo-busting show for its time, but it was also you-know-what. "There was nothing represented in the media or culture," Graham says, "where there was a woman's story in the way that I could relate, and still be fun" -- there's that word again -- "for me to see these women talking about."

As for how she picks her roles, "I just kind of go with what's fun," she says.

Like, for instance, a script she has been developing for herself about the notorious Triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, a long-standing project she hopes to get into production by 2008. "I'm sooo obsessed with that story," says Graham, who has recently become interested in producing vehicles in which she can star. "I've been working on that script for years. It's just really fun."

Hold on a second. A movie about an industrial disaster in which 146 New York City garment workers perished is fun?

"I think that there's something beautiful about a story about tragedy," Graham explains. "Because it's about a fire that was a huge tragedy and a lot of women died, but also how it was the birth of this beautiful thing that happened, which is that all these laws were passed that protected all the workers, that sort of outlawed sweatshops and [created] safety laws."

Okay, so maybe we misjudged her hidden depths.

Graham insists that she has, like everyone else, a "dark side." That, like the late-blooming lesbian she plays in "Gray Matters," her life has not been without a struggle to accept who she is. "I think I identified with it in a weird way," she says. "The idea that it was a story about a person learning how to trust themselves and learning to enjoy and celebrate who you are."

In Graham's case, much of that has certainly had to do with her choice of career and the sometimes risque roles she has taken, a path that long ago put her at odds with her conservative upbringing, leading to a much-publicized estrangement from her parents, which Graham prefers not to discuss. "I hate to violate their privacy by talking about them in a magazine article, whatever, a newspaper," she says.

She wasn't always so circumspect. "I know," she says, "I just decided it wasn't that nice." She says she regrets the loose lips exercised in some of her earliest interviews, given at 18 or 19, when she started acting (Graham turned 37, by the way, three days before the day we spoke).

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"When you do it when you're a teenager, you're like, 'Blah, blah, blah, my parents. Blah, blah, blah, this,' and 'Blah, blah, blah, that.' And then it becomes a story, and you're like, 'Oh, do I really want to publicize this?' You think, 'No.' "

What Graham wants to publicize at the moment is the message of tolerance and self-acceptance she believes is espoused, but not hammered away at, by her newest role, which she believes everyone -- gay or straight, celebrity or nobody -- can relate to. "It's like, people can judge your life and say, 'Oh, why do you have this difficulty with your parents?' or 'Why did you do this thing that I read about?' You have to reach a place in yourself where you go, 'People are going to says things about me. People are going to write derogatory things about me.' And I mean, who cares? That's hard to get to, that place."

Another place that's hard to get to, according to Graham, is a world without sexual double standards. That's something the actress, in the parts she takes and in her new role as producer, would like to change.

"Where's the funny comedy about being a woman, and sexuality, and what they think, and what they feel, that's more out there than just 'I want to be married' and 'How can I meet the right guy?' It's so ingrained that we're used to, like, 'Oh, there's Will Ferrell, there's Adam Sandler, there's these guys.' Where's the female equivalent? There is none, and that's sad."

So is Graham angling to be the next Sarah Silverman, the pretty and potty-mouthed star of "Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic" and now her own TV show? Does she want to change the world as a power-player producer of feminist films, both serious and silly, that will turn the patriarchy on its head?

"There's a part of me that really wants to do that," Graham says, "and there's a part of me that just wants to be happy. I would like to feel that the system could change, but at the same time I don't want to be miserable in life. I just want to do the things I like. I'd love for that to happen, and in the meanwhile, I just want to" -- wait for it -- "have fun."[source]

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